Once upon a time, in between finishing college and starting seminary, I worked as a substitute teacher. Out of all the temporary jobs I've ever had, I probably loved substiteaching the most.
There was, however, one day when I did not enjoy substiteaching. That day took place when I filled in for a neophyte first grade teacher who had never had a sub before. Due to her inexperience, this otherwise great teacher made the critical error of assuming that I knew the jargon of a first grade classroom. (I, of course, didn't.) And the result of combining her assumption with my ignorance was that I had a list of things that I was supposed to teach the kids, but I didn't actually know what any of those things were.
At 8:30, we do Calendar. At 9:15, it's Happy Friend Time with Mr. Letters Hour. At 11:37, it's Super Storybook Explosion.
That's pretty much all I had in my teacher-prepared notes.
Of course, I tried my best to prevent those kids from knowing that I had no idea what I was doing. Ok, I'd saccharinely say, who wants to tell me about Calendar time? But after doing this a couple of times, the students had figured out what was really going on, that I was just trying to get them to teach me what I was supposed to teach them. And once they realized that, they saw that the tables had turned. The teacher was now the one learning. And the learners were now those attempting to teach.
I bring this up because, when it comes to church music and hymondy, something very similar happens whenever we Lutherans start eating up non-Lutheran stuff. Just like that day in Ms. What's Her Name's first grade classroom, the one who is supposed to be imparting knowledge ends up having to take knowledge in. Likewise, the one who is supposed to be absorbing it is having to dish it out. And whenever that happens, whenever the teacher-student relationship is reversed, the quality of instruction is never very good.
It happens like this:
So one day, a non-Lutheran says to himself, hey, I'm going to write a hymn. And because he recognizes that Colossians 3:16 states that hymns exist to teach people stuff, he then thinks in his brain, since I'm a Non-Lutheran, I'm going to teach all kinds of Non-Lutheran stuff in this hymn. So, if he's a Methodist, he teaches people that Jesus becomes their savior when they welcome him into their hearts. If he's a Calvinist, he teaches people that they should think God is super awesome because Jesus didn't die for everyone. If he's a Pietist, he teaches people that the love of God can be found in swooning over our own faith.
Then a bunch of Methodists and Baptists and Pietists start singing these hymns because they affirm their theology and because they have pretty melodies and are easy to remember.
Then your Grandmother Ethel hears the choir sing one of these hymns on S. Parkes Cadman's radio program. Or your Uncle Herb hears Andy Williams' recording of it on his latest Christmas album. Or your daughter Stayceee hears Switchfoot play it at the concert she went to with her Non-Denominational friends last week.
Then Grandma Ethel or Uncle Herb or Little Stayceee asks his or her pastor if he or she can sing those songs during the Sunday morning service. And, either because he doesn't want to upset someone or because he's a theological sack of mashed potatoes, Pastor says yes and his congregation falls in love with this new piece of music.
But then, when someone objects to this inclusion of non-Lutheran music in a Lutheran service, the congregation singing such a hymn becomes somewhat defensive. Yeah, it had some bad theology in it, she says. But don't worry. We Lutheranized it.
Now, by Lutheranized, this congregation does not mean that she tracked down the author of the hymn, properly catechized him, then convinced said freshly-orthodox pastor to freeze all licensing of his composition, recall all copies and rewrite every word of his poetry with the faith of the Augsburg Confession dripping out of his pen. No, by Lutheranized, this congregation means that she changed maybe three or four words so that the hymn was no longer teaching blatant false doctrine. It used to say of the Sacrament of the Altar, too soon we rise; the symbols disappear. Now it says, the vessels disappear. It used to say, once for favored sinners slain. Now it says, once for every sinner slain. It used to say, I feel a rumbly in my tumbly, now I know that I am saved. Now it says, I feel a rumbly in my tumbly, which is a perfectly natural emotional response to hearing the external Word, which, as we all know, is the sole Power at work in conversion.
Granted, if a Lutheran congregation is going to insist on using non-Lutheran hymns, it's better that she play the heresy-white-out game instead of leaving hell enough alone. But in the end, she's still turned the tables and gotten things all backwards. Because instead of the hymns she sings telling her what to confess about the Gospel, she's the one telling those hymns what they ought to confess. Instead of listening as a theologically brilliant poet deftly executes the immeasurably difficult task of beautifully and clearly proclaiming the pure Gospel in meter and rhyme, she has to shout over a theologically inept poet in an attempt to cover up his mangling of Law and Gospel.
Or, to put it in simpler terms, instead of those hymns teaching that congregation, that congregation is the one teaching those hymns. And just as those first grade students came to discover the day I subbed for Ms. What's Her Name, when you're the one instructing the person who is supposed to be educating you, you're really not learning much at all.
My name is Pastor Hans Fiene. And my wife had been nagging me to write something other than a Lutheran Satire commentary for a while.